Blessings and Gratitude Amidst Adversity

Have you ever wondered why so many bad things happen in the world? Do we “earn” the good in life and are the bad things we experience punishment? What is the source of the “good” and “evil” that we experience every day of our lives?

While philosophers and theologians have been debating the problem of evil and prosperity gospel for millennia, a recent family experience has helped me better understand my admittedly non-academic take on these perplexing questions, the complexities and messiness of life, and how I choose to interpret the good and bad I encounter.

Getting an Early Start

It was Thanksgiving break, 2018, and my family of 8 was packed tightly into our minivan, headed to visit family in Missouri for the holiday.

We had done this trip many times, usually taking the northern I-80 route from Utah. However, due to severe weather in Wyoming, it was likely that I-80 would close due to the winter storm. This time we decided to take the southern I-70 route.

We had started the day as we always do on these big trips; we woke the kids up at about 5 am, loaded up the luggage, everyone got situated in their designated spot, we said a quick prayer that we would travel safely, and then we were off!

This drive is an 18-hour all-day journey. While we had split the drive into two days on a couple off occasions, we found that the kids tended to do better when we just knocked it all out in one day. So that was the plan as we departed from our Orem, Utah home early that late November Saturday morning.

A Perfectly Normal Day

Throughout most of the day, the trip was completely typical. With 8 of us in a minivan designed for 7 passengers (years earlier we had traded out the middle bucket seats for a second bench seat, giving us the 8th spot, to accommodate all of our kids!), things were certainly snug. While there was the inevitable bickering from time to time, the kids have always done these drives well. We had some good discussions, we had fun listening to music and audio books together, and we saw a good amount of patience from everyone throughout the day.

Hitting Winter Weather

Throughout the first 10 hours of the trip, the weather was perfect and we were happy about taking the southern route. We started to experience some weather as we came out of the mountains into Denver, but it wasn’t until we reached Kansas, 10+ hours into the trip, that things started to get dicey.

While there was some snow, the bigger concern was ice on the roads. We slowed down considerably and we let our family in Missouri know that we likely would be getting in much later than originally planned.

The Accident

As we continued along !-70, we started noticing more and more cars that had spun off the road, so we were going quite slowly and were even considering stopping for the night and doing the rest of the trip the next day. Around 8:30, a large white passenger van (the kind that holds 12–14 people) up in front of us slid off the road. Assuming it was a large family and being concerned, I pulled up behind them to check on how they were and if they needed any help.

It turns out it was just one man driving the van and he was completely fine. He was about to call a tow truck, so I wished him well and walked back to my minivan and family.

I climbed back into the van, buckled my seat belt, and looked in the rear view mirror to check if it was okay to pull back onto the freeway. There were a couple of vehicles approaching, so I was just waiting for them to pass and then we would be back on our journey.

It is a strange feeling to have time turn to slow motion, seeing an impending threat that you can do nothing about. As I was watching the rear view mirror, waiting for that last vehicle to pass, I remember thinking, they are going too fast. I was “front and center” as the van on the freeway lost control and headed straight for us. In those brief moments before impact, all I could think about was my family, just hoping and praying we would all be OK.

My family didn’t know what was coming. When the van made impact, the back window shattered, spraying everyone with little pieces of glass. The sound of metal crunching and children screaming filled the minivan. We were launched from where we were parked on the right-hand shoulder across both lanes of the freeway, eventually coming to rest in the median on the left side of the freeway.

Those moments immediately after impact, everything was a blur. Looking in the rear view mirror, I had closed my eyes and (thankfully) taken my foot off the break a split second before the van hit us from behind. Then I just felt like we were floating out of control in slow motion, until we eventually came to rest 100+ feet away from the site of initial impact.

Checking on Everyone

Once it was all over and we got our bearings, my wife and I immediately turned to check that the kids were okay. We did a quick roll call and to our complete astonishment and relief, everyone was fine. While everyone was shaken up and rather sore, we had escaped any serious life-threatening injury.

While my wife called 911, I got out of the minivan to see if the people in the other van were okay. As I carefully crossed the freeway to the right shoulder, I found that amazingly everyone in the other vehicle, while frightened and a little banged up, were also fine. Somehow everyone had escaped this horrible accident without any serious injury.

As I came back across the freeway and approached my minivan from behind, I could see all of the devastating damage and I knew we wouldn’t be driving away from this one. I said another prayer that we might be able to get to somewhere warm and safe for the evening.

The Wait

As it turns out, we later learned there were 80+ accidents on I-70 in Eastern Kansas that night, and since we were fortunate to not experience any serious injury, we were told we would likely need to wait for emergency vehicles to arrive. Of course the children were still frightened and we tried to calm them. I was so proud of my older children, who despite their own trauma, took it upon themselves to hug and sooth their younger brothers and sisters.

Additionally, as the back window of the minivan was blown out and it was an exceptionally cold night, we gathered blankets and tried to make sure everyone could stay warm while we waited for emergency vehicles to arrive. As we waited and the time stretched further and further, we tried to keep our spirits up and our nerves in check by sharing stories, telling jokes, and talking about what everyone was grateful for.

Around 10 pm the first police officer arrived and around 11 pm the first tow truck arrived. By midnight we were able to load everyone up in the tow truck and police car and head back to the nearby town of Ellsworth, about 20 minutes away, where we were dropped of at the one motel in the area, which was across the street from the repair shop where our totaled minivan was dropped.

Getting Settled for the Night

As we grabbed our luggage and went in to the motel to try and get a couple of rooms for the night, we were fortunate to get what we were told were the very last two available rooms in the entire county. We said a prayer of gratitude together as a family and then my wife went with three of the children to one room, on one end of the motel, and I went with the other three children to the room on the other end of the motel.

It was about 12:45 am by the time we were able to get the kids settled and situated in bed. Fortunately, they all were able to fall asleep rather quickly, while my wife and I remained awake, too shaken up and too concerned about the kids to sleep.

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Work to Do

I also had some work to do to figure out what our next steps would be. First, I called my father in Missouri to let him know what happened and that we wouldn’t be arriving that night. I checked on our auto insurance a filed the start of our claim, and I checked on the possible availability of rental cars in the area.

I quickly figured out that we would not be able to get rental cars. Not only were there no rental car companies within an hour of Ellsworth, but even those in the nearest town were not open on Sunday. I wrestled with what to do, thinking perhaps we would just need to hunker down and wait until Monday, try to get a ride with someone to the town an hour away, rent a car, and then continue the final four hour drive to my parent’s home in Missouri.

Family to the Rescue

It was amidst this wrestle that I received a message from my father asking if we would like for my two brothers in Missouri to drive out and pick us up. While I appreciated the offer, I was hesitant to accept it because I knew that would amount to an unexpected 8 hour (round trip) drive for both of them to come and get us. But as we considered our plight and the trauma the kids had experienced, my wife and I determined that we should accept their gracious offer and get the kids to their grandparent’s home as quickly as possible so they could feel safe.

As soon as the repair shop across the street opened at 8 am (just for us because it was a Sunday), I went over and talked with the mechanic. As I suspected, the minivan was beyond repair and I started the necessary insurance paperwork so it could e declared totaled by the insurance company. I thanked the mechanic for rescuing us the night before and for meeting with me on a Sunday morning. Then I gathered the rest of our belongings from the totaled minivan and headed back to the motel.

At around 10 am, my brothers arrived in their cars, we packed everything up, and we started on the final leg of our journey. Being with family can be healing, and it was wonderful to be able to talk with them and to just feel safe and secure. For the first time in 14 hours, I felt like I could breathe and some of my stress and anxiety dissipated.

We arrived at my parent’s home in the early afternoon that Sunday. The sense of everyone’s relief was palpable. We were so grateful that my family sprung into action at a moment’s notice, in the middle of the night, with seemingly no thought to their own inconvenience.

The Aftermath

In the following days, there was still more work to do with the insurance companies (ours and the other driver’s) and in finding a vehicle for my family. No car rental company in Northwest Missouri was able or willing to rent us an 8-passenger vehicle for a one-way trip back to Utah. However over the course of the next several hours, a series of many small miracles lined perfectly for us and by Tuesday morning we had purchased a new (to us!) 2006 Toyota Sienna that was quite the upgrade for us; both newer and more roomy than the minivan that had been totaled just a couple of days earlier.

A Wonderful Week of Thanksgiving

This was a Thanksgiving that we will never forget. We had a wonderful and relaxing visit with all of our Missouri family. We were able to celebrate Thanksgiving day together and start the Christmas season together in the days that followed. We had the opportunity to reflect on our many blessings in a new focused way, including those most important — our health and family relationships. We had the opportunity to serve and lift each other through the trauma. We grew closer together as a family.

Gratitude for Blessings

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Through all of this experience, we feel forever grateful that our family was safe and protected. This story could have just as easily had a very different, much more tragic outcome.

I don’t know why we were protected from harm that night while others weren’t. I don’t believe we were any more deserving or worthy of divine protection. There was nothing we had done to uniquely qualify ourselves for the blessing of safety and the many miracles that followed.

For whatever reason, we were safe and unharmed. For whatever reason, we had a long series of small miracles line up for our benefit, starting that fateful Saturday evening and continuing into the following week. We were kept safe from physical harm, we were kept warm during our long wait on the side of the road on a freezing winter night, we were able to get the last two available motel rooms in the county, we had family come and rescue us, we were able to purchase a replacement minivan with relative ease, we were able to heal from the emotional trauma, and we were able to have an unforgettable holiday trip with family.

I don’t know why things work out the way they do, but I am grateful for the many life experiences we have that provide us with the opportunities to learn and grow, to develop deeper empathy and compassion, and to better strengthen and serve those around us.

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